How can the built environment address modern slavery? By Helen Carter

With the announcement from the Global Slavery Index this month that the number of victims of modern slavery has increased to 49.6 million people, there is now an increasing awareness that more needs to be done to make effective and lasting change.

Whilst modern slavery contains several crimes, businesses are becoming more tuned into the issue of forced labour which has increased from 16 million to 17.6 million and can be traced back to supply chains.  That figure does not include the state imposed forced labour which sees governments subsidising their own GDP with use of 3.9 million victims.

Source: Walk Free

Construction (or the built environment) accounts for 18% of those forced labour figures and can be found permeating throughout supply chains of products and services within the industry.

So how does an organisation address these issues? Here are five starting tips.

1. Increase awareness within your organisation and don’t forget project sites

Make sure that you train everyone in your organisation and don’t forget your site staff. I see a lot of businesses training at corporate level to satisfy reporting requirements and forgetting to think about project and site teams. You can view free resources at the Supply Chain Sustainability School which can provide support in this area.

2. Understand the risk and that it has different faces

There is a significant reliance on supply chains in the built environment with up to 80% of a project being delivered by them. Therefore, risk can be direct (found on site and part of a business relationship you have) or indirect (buried in the products used on sites).  It is essential that risk is considered throughout all these permutations. Don’t forget your subcontracts as they contain both direct and indirect risks you will need to consider and address.

3. Prevent, identify, mitigate, and remediate 

Due diligence is not about ensuring that you are able to claim that there is no modern slavery in your supply chain. You can support eradication on your sites and projects but when we consider indirect risks of modern slavery buried in your supply chain, that takes a whole different strategy and one that may require collaboration or considering alternative solutions. There are batteries being designed that remove some of the high-risk products and replacing them with alternatives reducing the human rights issues for example.

Remember prevention is part of due diligence so look at where your projects are unintentionally creating vulnerability, such as poor payment, last minute specification changes, minimum wage, etc. and consider strategies to address these issues as well.

4. Consider modern slavery alongside your climate change strategy

Batteries, solar panels, semi-conductors, and conflict minerals are all key components in the battle to mitigate and adapt to climate change. However the reality is they are some of the key components that can be linked to the most egregious human rights violations.  Ensuring that the concept of just transition is at the heart of your climate change strategy enables you to deliver more sustainable change.

5. Don’t focus only on compliance

The nature of the built environment is transient, and project based. Only doing paperwork to manage the due diligence misses the opportunity to connect with people on your sites and ensure you’re picking up on any signs of modern slavery. It is difficult and time is a real constraint but remember paperwork can be forged and falsified, victims’ responses and reactions to their situation are much more difficult to fake.

Interested in how we can help your organisation with your modern slavery strategy? Get in touch with our expert Helen Carter here.

For more information

Helen Carter
Lead Consultant

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